PEI

Report details poor living conditions, 'unscrupulous' practices for P.E.I. migrant workers

A new report released Tuesday is calling on both the provincial and federal governments to do more to protect migrant workers coming to Prince Edward Island to take on essential work in the agriculture and fish processing industries.

Housing found to be a big issue in joint report looking at experiences on P.E.I.

The report titled 'Safe at Work, Unsafe at Home' issued recommendations for the provincial and federal governments, with some focused specifically on safe and dignified housing for workers. (CBC)

A new report released Tuesday is calling on both the provincial and federal governments to do more to protect migrant workers coming to Prince Edward Island to take on what is considered essential work in the agriculture and fish processing industries.

Researchers from the Cooper Institute and Dalhousie and St. Thomas universities interviewed 15 migrant workers who travelled to P.E.I. last summer during the COVID-19 pandemic, looking at whether they were provided with enough protection from the virus. 

The report found that while COVID-19 protocols were followed in the workplace, the same could not always be said for the living conditions of temporary foreign workers.

"The pandemic exacerbated workers' working and living conditions. So for instance: overcrowding. I would say housing was the biggest issue by far in what we found," said Raluca Bejan, an assistant professor of social work at Dalhousie and an author of the report.

"Overcrowding was an issue before, as it was documented by many other studies of migrant workers, but it is particularly concerning that overcrowding persisted in a time when social distancing was actually … emphasized by public health protocols."

The report also highlighted other concerning practices deemed "unscrupulous," such as withholding contracts from employees, leaving them afraid to speak up for fear of having their contracts revoked or being deported.

Though it was not a general finding, of the 15 people interviewed, Bejan said two workers also had their passports withheld by their employer, something she calls "illegal."

No housing inspections for fish plant workers

P.E.I. brought in 1,725 migrant workers in the summer of 2020: 865 entered through streams set up for the seafood processing sector, while another 755 entered as agricultural workers, with many coming from Mexico, Guatemala, Jamaica, India and the Philippines.

Fish plant and agricultural workers enter the province under different program streams of immigration, which Bejan said is subject to different protocols and can make things "complicated."

According to the report, in 2020, the provincial Department of Health and Wellness conducted 64 inspections of dwellings for temporary foreign workers, half of which identified violations.

The list ranges from missing or damaged smoke detectors and fire extinguishers to poor furnishings; inadequate windows or screens; damage to windows, walls and ceilings; and insufficient beds, washrooms and kitchen facilities.

Canadian farming, and the entire agri-food industry, will not be able to survive without migrant workers.— Raluca Bejan, Dalhousie associate professor

But not all housing was inspected.

Bejan said inspections are limited to temporary foreign workers in the agricultural sector, since their employer provides their housing under the federally regulated process, which also outlines the standards that need to be met.

"No such stipulation exists for fish plant workers, so because these stipulations don't exist, actually no one inspects their housing," she said.

The researchers found that instead, fish plant workers were responsible for their own accommodations, often renting in the community, which added another disparity to the treatment of workers, as the amounts varied from $38 to $1,200 a month.

Some costs passed off to workers

Some people had to cover some of their own expenses, including required personal protective equipment such as gloves and special garments, as well as costs for travel, work permits and medical examinations. 

While the province covered the cost of their 14 days of quarantine in a hotel, two workers told the researchers they ended up having to pay for their own five-hour taxi ride from the Halifax airport to the hotel in P.E.I.

The report said workers who enter to work in seafood processing often have to find their own housing. Report author Raluca Bejan said this leads to 'terrible overcrowding' and is 'very, very expensive.' (Robert F. Bukaty/The Associated Press)

"The provincial government can also try to investigate what is going on because, you know, it appears as if some landlords are also benefiting from this whole scheme," she said.

"A landlord will rent their house for $1,500, $2,000 a month — the regular monthly rate in P.E.I. — but then if you house 20 workers and they each pay $300, you get to an amount of like $4,000 or $5,000, so I don't think that's fine."

The research also found evidence of rodents, including rats, in some of the housing.

"It's 2021 and Canada is a place that sort of prides itself on values of human rights and treating people in a good way and being tolerant.... These are essential workers. Canadian farming, and the entire agri-food industry, will not be able to survive without migrant workers," Bejan told CBC News.

"We just need to treat them fairly. We need to respect their work."

'Extreme' overcrowding

Another problem the report highlighted was a failure to install COVID-19 protective barriers between beds, a guideline from the province, to reduce the spread of droplets that could carry the virus and be passed to a roommate while sleeping.

"There's no evidence that these guidelines were enforced … and then when we talk about overcrowding, we're talking about, for instance, 17 people living in a single-family home. On average, I'd say we had 10 people sharing one washroom or one kitchen facility."

"What's the point of enforcing COVID regulations at work, then when people come home, they live with 20 other people and they all share one washroom? It's senseless," Bejan said.

Researchers characterized the overcrowding as "extreme," with some accommodations having only one room full of bunk beds with little to no space to store personal belongings.

Some homes had dozens of people living together, sharing limited washroom and kitchen facilities, while one larger dwelling had close to 70 people living in it.

The workers reported that the conditions changed little, if at all, during the pandemic, despite guidance provided by the provincial government.

Improving conditions possible, says report

The report also issued 15 recommendations to improve the conditions for temporary foreign workers coming to P.E.I., including granting permanent residency status to all migrant workers on arrival, giving workers a P.E.I. health card, and ensuring workers have full access to employment insurance benefits. 

The authors also advocated for more transparency across all of the programs, and for the publication of data like job classifications, the stream involved, employers and their locations.

"For people to know, 'OK, these are the employers of temporary foreign workers,' then people can conduct inspections," Bejan said. "It allows for more transparency."

Workers pick strawberries on a farm in British Columbia. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

She said the lack of transparency is conducive to trouble.

"If these workers would be unionized, a lot of this abuse would not happen."

One of the other recommendations is to put an end to employer-specific work permits, which would free the workers from having their stay in the country tied to a specific employer, meaning they would not be so fearful of retaliation if they make a complaint. 

The report also said P.E.I. must implement the proposed Temporary Foreign Worker Protection Act.

If that legislation is passed, provincial officials said it would likely be another year before the act would become law.

More from CBC P.E.I.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Nicola MacLeod is a reporter with CBC in P.E.I.

With files from Kerry Campbell

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